Published by openDemocracy on 13 Feb 2009.
The homegrown embrace of democracy in Bangladesh represents both a historic demonstration of its people’s will and an injunction to the west.
It is part of the hyperbolic tendency of the age to wield the word “historic” rather loosely in describing election victories and defeats. The national election in Bangladesh on 29 December 2008 is one of the rare such events that truly deserves the term.
There are three reasons for this. First, the election marked a resounding verdict for democracy. The last two years, Bangladesh was ruled by a military-led caretaker government backed by the west. This administration kept its crucial word of holding elections, but had made a mess of governance, with political machinations, judicial interference, and widespread human-rights abuses.
Bangladeshis took notice, and offence. A pre-election survey reported that 87% of voters thought that any elected administration, regardless of party, would govern better than the caretaker government. So, on election-day a huge number of citizens showed up to vote, and with extraordinary enthusiasm.
Second, the election delivered a landslide victory for the Awami League (AL), a centre-left party that promoted progressive policies and religious freedom. In the previous election, in 2001, the United States had tacitly opposed AL, partly because of the league’s cautious approach to foreign investment in Bangladesh’s oil and gas. BNP, the centre-right party that won in 2001, became steeped in massive corruption, and western companies had a good share of many underhand deals.
Third, the vote was a decisive rejection of the BNP alliance with Jamaat-e-Islami, the largest Islamist party in the country. Their combined rule between 2001 and 2006 was marked by unprecedented violence and terrorism against progressives, leftists, cultural icons, and religious and ethnic minorities. By 2005, extra-judicial killings by government agents rose to 396 (there had been just one in 1998). Bangladeshis handed this rightwing alliance a thumping defeat in the election, with Jamaat-e-Islami in particular decimated.
The rise and fall of political Islam
The experience of Bangladesh since independence helps explain how momentous is this outcome. Bangladesh has always had an uncomfortable relationship with political Islam. Its secession from Pakistan in 1971 was the result of its refusal to accept religious identity as the primary basis of nationhood. The Pakistani army and local Islamist collaborators, justifying their actions by invoking religion, then committed the swiftest genocide in history, slaughtering at least 1 million Bengalis in nine months before surrendering – a scale of killing matched subsequently only by the Rwandan tragedy in 1994.
After a rightwing coup in 1975 killed the left-leaning Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the father of the nation, the Islamist war criminals were slowly re-established by successive pro-west military governments. In the 1980s, Islam was made mandatory in the school curriculum, then brought into national political discourse; in 1988, it was named the state religion by General Ershad in a bid to garner support among Bangladesh’s Muslim majority.
Middle-eastern funds, labour flows to the Saudi peninsula, and US political backing to these generals – all these helped Jamaat-e-Islami spread quietly across the country. When democracy was restored in 1991, the main political parties (the Awami League and the BNP) also cavorted with various Islamist outfits to increase their share of votes.
Jamaat, once tainted with genocide, had nonetheless by 2001 become an official part of government. More radical groups, some with connections to the Taliban, also appeared. Waves of terrorist attacks were unleashed and went unaccounted for – and it seemed that the Islamists had not only reinstated themselves, but achieved impunity in a country that was born on a secular-progressive platform.
All this was happening in the post-9/11 world, and under the patronage of a rightwing Bangladeshi government supported by the George W Bush administration.
Then, in 2007, the military took over again, and initiated a sweeping anti-crime drive, eventually detaining half-a-million, often without charges. Hundreds of politicians were awarded lengthy prison terms in speedy tribunals, but mainstream Islamist leaders and war criminals were largely left out. Powerful interests in the government, clearly, continued to protect them. After the Bangladeshi election, they may be a bit worried.
The lesson for the west
The defeat for Islamism in Bangladesh did not come from western intervention, nor from suppression by authoritarian governments aided and equipped by the west. It came from an election, from mainly Muslim voters in a Muslim-majority country.
The lesson for the west is familiar if yet to be fully appreciated: that it needs to support the democratic process in Muslim countries, rather than cherry-pick winners and losers. Islamists increased their influence in Bangladesh since 1975 mainly under governments backed by the west. As in Pakistan, these governments politicised Islam to strengthen their position against progressive democratic alternatives. But time and again, western policy has prioritised those who seem pro-west or pro-investment, rather than those who are pro-democracy.
In the post-9/11 world, both the BNP government and the caretaker government skilfully sold extremist threats to the west. There is evidence that parts of the government materially supported terror attacks during 2001-06, which in turn helped demonstrate the urgency of the threat. Then, with a polished approach bred of authoritarian pedigree, they impressed western diplomats as the efficient, organised types needed to combat extremism. The security systems they built with western aid became additions to the state’s repressive apparatus, used liberally against citizens of all political hue.
Here, then, is the fourth and final way the return of democracy in Bangladesh made history: it demonstrated the futility of the west’s conventional approach of fighting extremism. After thirty years of meddling, which only bolstered Islamist groups, it’s time the west left Bangladeshi politics on its own, except for supporting the democratic process – and the democratic process only, regardless of who wins and who loses.